“Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.”
When I think of the book that changed my life (one of the books that changed my life) I think of the particular cover that was on our class set, red blood dripping from the grey pig’s head. I think of the funny little dungeon-like classroom that we had English in that year with Mrs Tinto. I think of sitting at the Atari ST in my brothers’ bedroom typing out an essay that had got under my skin in a new way, just like the book had.
I started high school already shaped by the stories read on a parent’s knee, by the books on their bookshelves, by my brothers’ hand-me-down reads, by an influential Primary School teacher, by the library. I was an 11-year-old who loved Aslan and the Saucepan-Man and Nancy Drew and Gilbert Blythe. I loved the Hardy Boys. I loved my fair share of missionaries. Books had also introduced me to the Holocaust, to the Troubles in my own country, to poverty and to death. My childhood is full of books that have changed my life… or at least steered, steadied, challenged and expanded it.
In that first year of high school we read Boy by Roald Dahl, which I enjoyed, and then we read Lord of the Flies. And *it* was a game-changer.
I couldn’t seem to get that essay finished, I kept adding bits and adding bits. I had just learnt to use a thesaurus and I had just learnt to use commas as parenthesis and I’m sure I overused both. But I wonder now what my 11-year-old self wrote evening after evening? In between the ridiculous words and the lengthy verbose sentences, what was my response to this compelling novel?
This book is the one I remember. This book unsettled me. This book showed me the potential of story, and of myself, and the world.
I read it and knew, from page 2, that Piggy was wise and yet the dismissal of his wisdom rang loud and true. Did I do this to others? Did I feel like others did it to me?
I felt sympathy and empathy, familiarity and discomfort. I wanted to stand up for Piggy! But I wanted Jack to like me. I wanted Ralph to stay uncorrupted. I wanted everyone to listen to Simon. But would I have?
I was compelled to keep reading through the whole disastrous dystopian tale that offered me no happy resolution and no redemption – only the relief of rescue and the poignancy of savages returned to little boys again. It left me with questions that provoked me beyond the themes of war, civilisation and human nature. It didn’t follow the ‘formula’ of the books I was used to reading and it made me look at myself, and the world, more seriously.
My 35 year-old-self has retained many things from the stories I grew up with – imagination, an attachment to gingham and ginger beer, a sense of adventure, a love of the underdog. This book? It hollowed out a place in me that remains. A place for discomfort, for stories that get under my skin, for stories that ring loud and true even though I don’t want them to. I make space for these stories where everything is breaking down, even as I believe that all things will be made new.
[Reposted from the archives for NI Bookweek]